Anti-Semitism in Nevada

Except in a few published writings, blatant anti-Semitism was a rarity in nineteenth century Nevada. After 1900, mean-spirited references to Jews could be found in private correspondence and diaries. While anti-Semitism never became widespread or organized, isolated activities marred the otherwise friendly environment enjoyed by Nevada Jews in the twentieth century.

Beginning with the rush to the Comstock, Jewish merchants were part of the essential infrastructure supporting the mining economy. In many cases, these businessmen and women were among the first permanent settlers in Nevada towns. The men were often charter members and officers in fraternal organizations that were closed to Jews elsewhere in the country. Because of their civic leadership, the small size of their population, and the fact that they were just one minority in a state with the largest foreign-born population, Nevada Jews in these early decades were a prominent and appreciated segment of the local population.

There were some exceptions. Visiting journalist J. Ross Browne, using a common East Coast formula, routinely used the word Jew as an adjective to describe a Jew peddler or Jew slop shop. His line drawings of Jews were stereotypical, hook-nosed peddlers. Virginia City's Mary McNair Mathews was an equal opportunity bigot with little tolerance for Jews, the Chinese, lawyers, or train conductors. The works of Browne and Mathews, published outside Nevada and well after their departure from the state, contain useful descriptions of early life in Nevada. However, their anti-Semitism did not reflect the sentiments of the average Nevadan, who esteemed Jews as law-abiding taxpayers worthy of election to local and state offices.

The influx of eastern European Jews after 1880 and their overcrowded conditions in East Coast cities raised the level of anti-Semitism, which spread nationwide. Newcomers to Nevada brought the prejudice with them. When Mel Badt attempted to obtain an appointment for his brother, Herbert, to postmaster of Wells, Nevada, Governor John Sparks let it be known he intended to block the action of a "wild Jewboy" and consequently "knock out a rich Jew." In contrast, their younger brother Milton, who practiced law in Elko, claimed to have experienced no anti-Semitism as an attorney, judge, or elected chief officer of several fraternal lodges and as president of the Chamber of Commerce. The Ku Klux Klan was active in Elko and throughout Nevada in the 1920s. Although Jews were among the Klan's traditional targets, Nevada provided little traction for the Klan's discriminatory rhetoric.

When Nevada-born Jew Samuel Platt was running for the U.S. Senate in 1940, there was idle speculation within Senator Patrick McCarran's camp that Platt's ethnicity could prove to be a negative factor among voters. In view of the many other Jews elected to public office in the twentieth century, Platt's several losses at the national level were largely the result of his go-it-alone Republican politics. As for McCarran's alleged anti-Semitism, he tended to identify Jews as Communists. A recent biographer has characterized his views as "casual" and typical of the times. Several Nevada Jews were close to McCarran. Mort Saiger, McCarran's Las Vegas chauffer, considered him a friend. Eddie Ginsberg of Reno's Home Furniture store was an honorary pall bearer at McCarran's funeral, for which he was reproached by the local B'nai B'rith lodge and the Anti-Defamation League. McCarran's anti-Jewish bias may have been one borne of his religious upbringing and not directed to Jews he actually knew.

Attorney and later judge Clel Georgetta wrote a diary filled with anti-Semitic venom and included nothing complimentary about his fellow Republican Sam Platt. Moreover, he openly wrote that he enjoyed suing Jews, and he claimed to have told a Jewish lawyer to his face that his "breed contaminates the world." Georgetta must have limited his anti-Jewish vitriol to his diary, for he received an appointment to district judge and won election for a single term. One might assume that others shared his private anti-Semitic views, but chose not to leave them in writing for posterity.

A common bias against Jewish university faculty members nationwide was evident between 1938 and 1955 at the University of Nevada, when a dean informed his staff that they must hire no Jews. One departmental chairman bypassed the ban, expunged any reference to the candidate's ethnicity and hired a young faculty member, who, ironically, turned out to be the dean's son's favorite professor. During the same period, some fraternity pledges failed to receive membership because of having "Jewish traits," and two sororities simply told pledges that Jewish women were not admitted.

Las Vegas fraternal and civic organizations lacked the early Jewish charter membership, and newcomers had to break down restrictive membership policies. The elite Service League (now the Junior League of Las Vegas) had excluded Jewish women from its ranks since 1946, until Corinne Wollman Moss convinced the League's leaders to change their policy. Similarly, her husband, developer Melvin Moss, and attorney David Zenoff regularly conducted business with members of the Elks Club and were offended that lodge membership was closed to Jews. When they were first proposed for membership, they were blackballed. Then civic leaders Oscar Bryan, Madison Graves, and Harley Harmon conspired to propose both for membership and the barrier was broken.

Across the nation, Jews organized their own country clubs because they were denied membership in the local golf clubs. That was not the case in Nevada. Reno's country clubs were open to anyone with the money and social interest. Although Las Vegas' social clubs were closed to Jews even after World War II, the area's casino-affiliated country clubs, such as the Desert Inn and Dunes, were owned by Jews and open to Gentiles.

But discrimination continued. Between 1963 and 1971 it was reported that all sixty-eight Jewish dentistry licensing applicants had failed their state board exams. When Governor-elect Mike O'Callaghan learned of the inequity, he threatened to bypass the State Board of Examiners and to license dentists himself. The discrimination stopped.

From 1986 to 1988, Las Vegas' Imperial Palace owner Ralph Engelstadt threw parties to show off his Nazi memorabilia, and he allegedly forced Jewish employees to participate. There were cries of outrage from the local Jewish community, with protests countered by skinheads. The matter received national publicity and state gaming officials censured and heavily fined Engelstadt. It was the twentieth century's last major demonstration involving anti-Semitism in Las Vegas.

The most aggressive anti-Semitic events occurred in Reno, where the Jewish population was comparatively small. Vandals broke headstones in the Reno Hebrew Cemetery in 1990, and a decade later five self-proclaimed white supremacists attempted to firebomb Temple Emanu-El. They were apprehended and sentenced to up to forty years in prison. In 2001 a similar action against the temple resulted in a charred front door, and in 2004 neo-Nazis vandalized Temple Bat Yam at nearby South Lake Tahoe. Both crimes remain unsolved.

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